Saturday, October 19, 2013
Idle Thoughts -- Politics: Integrity vs Flexibility
Evaluate the question of character verses conduct in politics. Which do you think is of higher importance for a person running for or elected to office to have: personal integrity or a view on government that you agree with? Is there an alternative ? Explain
This question classically illustrates two points.
First, the tendency of human beings to take polarized positions. In his book, "How the Mind Works", Steven Pinker spends a great deal of time discussing this tendency. I won't go into the proposed evolutionary reasons for this, but the fact is, we humans tend to think of things in strict either or patterns.
This leads to problems such as the forced choice, false dichotomy in which a person makes his rhetorical point by demanding that you choose between two extremes with no other alternatives.
Second, is my deep commitment to the concept of balance. This is my own version of Aristotle's Golden Mean. While I think Aristotle was a bit too rigid about seeking the center, I do believe in the concept of finding a balance in the wide middle ground which avoids the extremes. I believe that Aristotle was too concerned about trying to distance himself almost equally from each extreme, which is why he used the term mean.
Finding an effective balance does not necessarily consist of being equally distant from each of those polarized extremes. The situation is more like placing a fulcrum under a lever. In some circumstances it is in the center, Aristotle's mean, but in other circumstances, it may need to be very close to the person applying the pressure to the lever, while in others, it may need to be closer to the object being lifted.
Back to the specifics of this question. These two items I do not believe are even correctly interpreted as opposite extremes. I think they address two separate areas. The issue of character is so fundamental that it is required of any candidate. What difference does it make what political position an individual takes if he lacks the character to actually commit to that position?
For example, during his campaign for election the senior George Bush made a statement he repeated and repeated until the American people came to believe that this was not an ordinary campaign promise, but a real moral commitment. He emphasized on every possible occasion but he would under no circumstances raise taxes. He even made the famous quote, "Read my lips! No new taxes!"
This position was credited with helping him to win the campaign. Yet, when in office he was faced with the problem of insufficient revenues for the government, so he agreed to raise taxes.
There are two ways to look at this. First, the man made an absolute moral commitment which he promptly abandoned. That of course is negative. On the other hand, he also showed a willingness to compromise and display flexibility. Those characteristics are very desirable in a politician running a complex democratic government.
Had he, during his campaign, said that he would do all he could to avoid raising taxes, I would have no problem with his action. My problem is that he said that absolutely, under no circumstances, would he raise taxes. Then he backed down on his commitment.
Let me be clear, I did not vote for him. I believed the taxes needed to be raised. What angered me was that he made an absolute declaration of a complete moral commitment to a certain course of action in order to get elected and then did the opposite.
Politicians should not take such absolute positions; and voters should not vote for candidates who do, even if you like the position. Because he had taken a position in which there was no room for any flexibility, he was forced to choose between doing what was good for the country or breaking his word. I think he did the right thing by raising the taxes, but he had made a promise which he now did not keep, which raises questions about his integrity and the value of his word.
To bring all this together, no politician should be given any votes if he does not have the basic moral character to mean what he says. If he lacks this basic integrity, you can trust him to do absolutely nothing except whatever he thinks will help him. His supposed agreement with your political position is meaningless if he's only saying it to get the job.
Once you decide that a set of politicians do have personal moral integrity, then you can select the one candidate from that limited group who most supports your political positions.
I must insist that the third element of flexibility and non-absolutism must also be included. Making an absolute promise that you will under no circumstances take a particular action is foolish and shortsighted. We cannot predict the future, so it is better to make a promise to a concept of government and acknowledge that under some unknown extreme circumstances which may arise, you may need to be a bit more flexible.
There is no doubt that the Tea Party Republicans who caused the recent crisis in government were sticking to the exact positions they said they would. They were displaying moral integrity. On the other hand, their refusal to compromise, the absolute rigidity, the certainty of the perfect correctness of their position and the total wrongness of everybody who dared to disagree with them, was foolish and shortsighted.
Bush Senior was more morally correct them they were, because he put the needs of the country ahead of his personal interests.
I can't resist throwing in a comment about Ted Cruz. I cannot believe Senator Cruz has any moral integrity whatsoever. I think he did what he did for the single sole purpose of setting himself up for a run for the presidency in the next election. I firmly believe he would've taken the exact opposite position if he thought that would give him a reasonable chance of success. He is a perfect example of what I think we should avoid it all politicians, the lack of moral character.